The picture, frequently described as "unfinished," is of unusual interest and importance for our understanding of the transformations in landscape painting in early seventeenth-century Rome—a period in which a renewed attention to the study of nature and an interest in the effects of light at various times of day intersected with the Venetian tradition of an idealized pastoral landscape. Northern painters played a conspicuous role in this story: the Fleming Paul Bril (1554–1626), who enjoyed enormous prestige in Rome, where he worked from 1583 on; the German Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), whose exquisite, small-scale landscapes were enormously influential; and Goffredo Wals (1595–1638; see 1997.157), who for a time was an assistant to the Italian Agostino Tassi (1578–1644), an artist prominent both as an expert in architectural perspective (quadratura) and in landscape painting and widely employed providing frescoed landscape friezes in the palaces of Rome. Claude Lorrain worked with both Tassi and Wals, and this panel has been ascribed alternatively to both Tassi and Claude (see References).
The picture is on a poplar panel one inch thick. The composition was laid in very summarily with a brush drawing in ink. The underdrawing can be seen in places through the paint but is only modestly enhanced by infrared reflectography since it is evidently in bistre or iron gall (see Additional Images). The technique is precisely analogous to what is found in the informal nature studies of Tassi and Claude: quick, calligraphic, with very little modeling. The outline of the distant mountain is easily detected, as are a few scalloped lines for the clouds, loops for the backs of the sheep; long lines for the trees—where there is some occasional curved hatching to indicate modelling (visible especially in the trunk of the tree to the far right); and indications for the foliage (best seen above the horizon at the far right). Analogies for the draftsmanship may be found in the graphic output of both Tassi and Claude. However, where those artists—and particularly Claude—would have then proceeded with ink washes to describe the play of light over the features of the landscape, here color was laid on in broadly brushed bands. At the right, the green was brushed in a vertical direction with almost no modeling. Elsewhere, as in the middle ground, the brushstrokes are horizontal and describe a succession of planes. The figure of Erminia was painted over the landscape—as though an interpolation to give what was a pure landscape view a classical subject. The figure is notable both for the summary treatment and the beautiful suggestion of light playing over the back of her neck and illuminating her arm. By contrast, the foliage of the trees is more densely painted and may properly be described as "finished." Everything else remains in a state that is perhaps best described as informal. There is, in other words, no reason to think that it was the artist’s intention to bring the work to a higher degree of finish, and to describe it as "unfinished"—signifying "incomplete"—is in this sense a misnomer.
The rapid, summary execution brings to mind two famous remarks regarding Claude’s study of nature. The first occurs in Joachim Sandrart’s biography (Der Teutschen Academie zweyter Theil, 1675) in which he recounts how Claude "tried by every means to penetrate nature, lying in the fields before the break of day and until night in order to learn to represent very exactly the red morning-sky, sunrise and sunset and the evening hours. When he had well contemplated one or the other in the fields, he immediately prepared his colours accordingly, returned home and applied them to the work he had in mind with much greater naturalness than anyone had ever done." Later, after meeting Sandrart, Claude took up "painting from life in the field. But while I was only looking for good rocks, trunks, trees, cascades, buildings, and ruins which were great and suited me as a fillers for history paintings, he on the other hand only painted, on a small scale, the view from the middle to the greatest distance, fading away towards the horizon and the sky, a type in which he was a master . . . ." (translation: Marcel Röthlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, New Haven, 1961, vol. 1, p. 48). The other remark was made on the occasion of a visit in August of 1647 by André Félibien, who records in his journal that "I saw Claude Lorrain and his small landscapes painted in tempera (détrempe) on wood. First it is necessary to put on a very delicate layer of glue (colle de gand), then paint, the colors having been diluted in the glue; or, alternatively, take an egg—the yoke and white—with a bit of vinegar and the same amount of water and the sap from the branches of a fig tree, and beat them together, and use this instead of the glue, gum Arabic (la gomme) not being good [for this purpose] because everything will curdle" (see Y. Delaporte, "André Félibien en italie," Gazette des beaux-arts 51 [April 1958], pp. 205–6; discussed in Rand 2011, p. 47). It was Félibien’s remark, evidently inspired by his curiosity at an unusual technique, that led Röthlisberger (1983) to date the picture to 1647, though on stylistic grounds a dating in the 1630s seems more likely. Cavazzini (2008), who believes the picture to be by Tassi, dates it to ca. 1632, and this seems more or less convincing regardless of which of the two artists is held responsible. The technique would appear to be one Claude adapted from painting on paper. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in the years around 1630 that Sandrart and Claude met and that Claude adopted his practice of painting outside. Röthlisberger has noted that Claude’s post mortem inventory lists eight small pictures on panel; the only other work on panel ascribed to him is a Flight into Egypt in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.
The relevance of these accounts is of great interest for our evaluation of this landscape as well as, obviously, for the history of plein air landscape painting. The picture might, indeed, be understood as the direct product of Claude’s early practice of studying nature and then rushing back to his studio to record his impressions. Whether Tassi also did this is not known. For a drawing related in subject and penmanship in the Harvard Art Museums (1979.231) that comes from an album of Tassi’s and contains both autograph and workshop material, see Patrizia Cavazzini, "Agostino Tassi Reassessed: A Newly Discovered Album of Drawings," Paragone 51 (July 2000), p. 20; also see Additional Images).
The story of Erminia is recounted in "Jerusalem Delivered," Torquato Tasso's epic poem of the First Crusade published in 1581 (VII, xix). Having fallen in love with the Christian knight Tancredi and having fled to the forest after being attached by soldiers, Princess Erminia takes refuge with shepherds. There, "when underneath the greenwood shade / Her flocks lay hid from Phoebus’ scorching rays, / Unto her knight she songs and sonnets made, / And them engraved in bark of beech and bays . . . . " (trans. Edward Fairfax, London, 1600). In the picture she is shown carving on the trunk of a tree. Interestingly, above her—out of reach—are two letters that the artist drew in ink: apparently "I N".